Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Britain’s hard choices

The “humiliating victory” enjoyed by British Prime Minister Theresa May in last week’s parliamentary elections limits her options and puts her in an unenviable position, writes Manal Lotfi in London

Leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster and Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds heading to a meeting with May (photo:AP)
Leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster and Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds heading to a meeting with May (photo:AP)

She appeared “contrite and genuine but not on her knees”, one senior member of the ruling British Conservative Party said of UK Prime Minister Theresa May this week when she met with members of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers after her “humiliating victory” in the UK’s general elections last week.  

It was indeed a humiliating and painful victory with possibly dire consequences for May, the Conservative Party, and the UK. 

May had been hoping for a landslide victory when she called the elections. But she ended up losing her overall majority in the House of Commons and found herself in need of an agreement with the right-wing Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to keep her government afloat.

The marriage of convenience between the DUP, an ultra-right party, and the Conservative Party, which has moved in recent years to more middle-ground policies, is not only problematic because of the ideological differences between the two, but also because of the price the DUP will ask for in order to keep the Conservatives in power.

Some observers have talked about more money being found for Northern Ireland in the UK budget, while others have talked about a change in Brexit strategy, the policies the government has been adopting for leaving the European Union.

Until a deal is done between the DUP and the Conservatives to form a government, May will have to delay presenting her government’s programme (the queen’s speech) to MPs.

To ensure that she receives a vote of confidence on this programme, she will need to please many opposing forces and individuals. It will be like walking on thin ice. Moreover, this situation has come about without there having been any real need for it. May did not need to call an election. Instead, this was a “vanity project” for a prime minister who wanted to be a “new Margaret Thatcher” but failed because of a depressing manifesto, a poor campaign, and a lack of charisma.  

In her first encounter with senior party figures this week, May apologised for the party’s dismal performance, telling them “I got us into this mess. I’ll get us out of it.” She added that she would serve as “long as you want me to”, a statement that confirmed reports of many Conservative MPs wanting May out sooner rather than later.

But with Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour Party leader, waiting for the Conservatives to fail in their task to form a government and new opinion polls showing Labour six points ahead, the Conservative Party has little choice but to keep May in position for the time being. Even Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who would love the opportunity to strip May of her position, does not think the timing is good.

In a WhatsApp message to Conservative MPs plotting to remove May, Johnson told them to “calm down” because the public was “fed up to the back teeth of politics and politicians” and did not want another election. Regarding Corbyn, Johnson said that “we have got to stop the narrative that Corbyn somehow won this thing — he barely did better than Gordon useless Brown when we beat him in 2010,” in a reference to former UK prime minister Gordon Brown.

Johnson’s support for May means he is not interested in the top job yet and that he realises the challenges of the current situation.

If May’s remarks during the campaign are taken at face value, the UK now is a much weaker country than it was seven weeks ago, especially in relation to the Brexit talks. One of the most repeated arguments made by May to justify calling an early election was that she needed a clear majority in the House of Commons to strengthen her hand in the talks. Coming out of the elections with fewer seats, wounded and forced to accept a compromise, it seems that bad Brexit deal is more likely.

This is what May said during the elections campaign, when she repeated that a “strong Theresa” would mean a good Brexit deal, whereas a weak one would mean a bad deal.  

The bottom line now is that May is no longer in charge and needs to master the art of deal-making. This will be hard for her as she is known to be a control freak, though it will be impossible for her not to seek deals at the head of a minority government. To survive for a year or two will be a miracle.

With her authority shattered and her image badly damaged, May will be forced to substantially water down some of the policies in the Conservative manifesto. Already, there is talk of a different Brexit strategy and of abandoning some of the social care plans and the austerity measures in the manifesto.

Without concessions, May’s programme will not succeed in parliament, and even hardliners in the Conservative Party acknowledge the need for compromise. David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said mid-week that some sections of the manifesto would have to be “pruned away” due to the weak position of the government.

May called this election “the Brexit election”, and Brexit is the most pressing issue facing the government now. May will undoubtedly have to soften her stance on Brexit if she is to form a government with the DUP and if she is to pass crucial votes in the Commons over the coming months.

There have been signs of compromise. Davis has said he is open to cooperation with Labour, but he has rejected the possibility of the UK’s retaining its membership of the EU single market. Finance Minister Philip Hammond has said he wants a “business-first Brexit”, meaning that he does not want to see anything ruled out before the talks begin, especially on the single market.

In short, May’s Brexit strategy is as good as dead. She needs to form a new one and fast because the EU is frustrated by the chaos and possible delay. EU Chief Negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier has urged the British to sort themselves out quickly, saying “I cannot negotiate with myself.”

There is a genuine fear in Brussels that the talks will not be concluded before the deadline of 2019, and Barnier has warned the UK of crashing out of the EU with no deal. Expressing his dismay over time-wasting on the Brexit talks, he has warned that “next week, it will be three months after the sending of the Article 50 letter,” referring to the notification of withdrawal. “We haven’t negotiated, and we haven’t progressed. Thus, we must begin this negotiation. We are ready as soon as the UK itself is ready.”

Although Barnier has refused to discuss the political turmoil in the UK, he said in an interview with European newspapers that “my preoccupation is that time is passing. It is passing quicker than anyone believes because the subjects we have to deal with are extraordinarily complex.”

However, it is not all bad news for the EU as despite concerns over the timetable a weakened May could potentially lead to a softer Brexit deal, which is preferable to the EU. Repeatedly stating that agreement on the principles of divorce was a “necessary crossing point,” Barnier said he was open to discussing all options on future relations, even if these differed from May’s original vision of the UK’s leaving the customs union and the single market.

“I don’t know what hard Brexit or soft Brexit means. Brexit is withdrawal from the EU, [and] it’s the UK’s decision. We’re implementing it,” he said.

May has fallen from grace in a spectacular fashion and breathtakingly fast as a result of the election. The anger in the Conservative Party from her unwise decision, grim manifesto, and flat campaign strategy has been devastating.

As one Conservative Party member put it to Al-Ahram Weekly, “she is being kept as the leader of the party for the time being because it is desperate to avoid an immediate election.”

It seems May’s premiership is over, even if she lasts as prime minister for a year or two longer. In keeping with the party’s reputation for ruthlessness, there is a consensus that by the time of the next election May will be gone.

As British political commentator Mark Mardell put it this week, “she is like a mediaeval monarch, captured by her barons, shorn of the advisers she loved and trusted, allowed one old close friend to administer cold comfort. The government is as stable as a two-legged stool, and she is sapped of strength and weakened by the demands of her colleagues.”

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